"We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends" -- Mary McLeod Bethune
A powerful civil rights activist and educator, Mary McLeod Bethune devoted her career to improving the lives of African Americans. She founded a school, Bethune-Cookman College, and served as president of the National Council of Negro Women and as a top black administrator in the Roosevelt administration. The first headquarters of the council and her last home, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House was declared a National Historic Site under the National Park Service in 1982.
In celebration of Women's History Month, the Sierra Club partnered with the National Park Trust to host an Every Kid in a Park event with the terrific fourth grade class from Washington School for Girls in southwest D.C. The Washington School for Girls in Anacostia is a tuition-free Catholic day school, whose students are primarily African-American girls.
The event was part of year-long celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the nation's national parks. Whether it's the Grand Canyon or historic and cultural sites, America's public lands belong to us all. As we look toward the next century of conservation, the Sierra Club is working to ensure everyone has the opportunity to experience all our public lands have to offer. Through the Nearby Nature initiative and through promotion of the Every Kid in a Park campaign, which ensures that fourth graders across America can access their parks, public lands and historical sites for free, and promotion of the Find Your Park campaign, the Sierra Club is working to build and inspire the next generation of environmental leaders, just like the young ladies of the Washington School for Girls.
Donning bright orange "Buddy Bison" t-shirts, the girls filed into the historic home quietly taking in the majestic chandeliers and artifacts. Sierra Club staff member Kirin Kennedy kicked off the excitement for environmentalism by explaining how people like artists, writers, and lawyers can all be advocates for environmental stewardship. Ranger Margaret Mills led the students through an enthusiastic lesson on social justice and the story of Mary McLeod Bethune, starting a school with just five students and $1.50. Her legacy lived on through four presidents.
The Sierra Club is dedicated to making the links between gender equity and environmental stewardship. We see that women's leadership is a key answer to the climate crisis. A study of 130 countries found that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more prone to ratify international environmental treaties.
And that link was loud and clear. These young female leaders understood that social justice, like the civil rights Mary McLeod so dearly fought for, are imperative for the the protection of each and everyone's ability to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and enjoy, explore and protect our natural lands.
As the Washington School for Girls youth eagerly tore the wrapping off their brand new national park passports and lined up for stamps, one student declared "I want to live in a house like this! I want to be like Mary McLeod!" Indeed, her legacy lives on in the eager young women dedicated to protecting the earth themselves and standing up for justice.